Sometimes a monster should just be a monster. Despite the fact we have been recently re-conditioned to expect cerebral allegories, hidden meanings and social commentary folded within genre movies (such as The Babadook, The Night House, Candyman, Us and many others), sometimes these expectations may backfire. And Antlers proves that.
Although Scott Cooper, who directed and co-wrote this film, has successfully evaded being tethered to any genre, I don’t think I had ever expected him to take on a supernatural horror movie. However, the thematic subtext and certain elements of character drama found in Antlers might have been what empowered Cooper to take on this movie, as opposed to the challenge of tackling something formally new.
Assuming a wider perspective over his portfolio will also immediately reveal that what he is interested in is what I can only define as the dark side of Americana. Together with such filmmakers as Jeremy Saulnier and Taylor Sheridan, Cooper is the ‘yin’ to the ‘yang’ espoused by the likes of David Gordon Green and Jeff Nichols. While those other filmmakers are interested in examining the callouses on the hands of the American working man and in their own way handle quite difficult subjects (such as David Gordon Green’s Joe or Nichols’ Take Shelter), Scott Cooper seems predominantly interested in looking at the dirt under his fingernails, which is what imbues his movies with their characteristic darkness and unsettling grit.
Thus, I have to say I was quite intrigued to see how Cooper’s artistic interests and thematic proclivities would fit within the rather sturdy parameters of a folk horror film, which Antlers undoubtedly is at its core. In simplest terms, the story in the film orbits around two characters: a primary school teacher Julia (Keri Russell), who has recently moved back to her hometown in the middle-of-nowhere in Oregon to live with her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), and one of her students Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), a withdrawn troubled kid. Both Julia and Lucas are conveniently symmetrical in that they are both harbouring dark secrets. Julia is working through the childhood trauma of being abused by her late father which led her to run away from home in the first place, while Lucas is haunted by something more sinister and… well, supernatural.
As it turns out, Lucas’ father Frank (Scott Haze), a locally known delinquent who up until recently has made a living by cooking meth in an abandoned mine, is attacked one day by a mysterious creature and begins to transform into a feral zombie with a penchant for raw flesh. But that’s not even the half of it because it is quickly revealed that what is happening to Lucas’ father is connected to a series of disappearances in the town and it is all somehow tethered to the Native American legend seemingly manifesting itself in real life.
Suffice it to say that Antlers attempts to grapple with a lot. Scott Cooper’s characteristic direction which aims to both desaturate the world and focus the viewer’s gaze on the internal horror ravishing the characters’ lives truly serves this aspect of the story well and – in and of itself – would easily function as a standalone movie. Come to think of it, it could have been a better choice to remove the supernatural elements in their entirety and re-tell this story as a simple drama about a woman grappling with her traumatic past, her brother’s own suppressed pain, and the little boy’s ordeal as a half-orphan trying to take care of his ailing father while being bullied by kids at school. As a result, instead of a supernatural folk horror, Antlers would have become a more straitlaced drama in the vein of The Place Beyond the Pines as its focus would shift towards exploring the horror of abuse in a more straightforward manner.
However, the movie opts to layer other themes on top and dresses itself in a folk allegory to boot. This isn’t exactly erroneous because many films (such as the ones I mentioned at the top of this article) can accomplish this feat successfully. This isn’t the case in here, though. It appears that the filmmakers may have either been slightly overwhelmed by what they embarked upon, or they weren’t sure how to make the layers of allegory and extraneous commentary placed upon the film’s primary drama work towards amplifying one another. Consequently, Antlers feels at the very least distracted and perhaps completely unfocused as it leaves the viewer unsure of how to parse the supernatural elements invading an otherwise grounded narrative. Are we to imagine the father’s transformation is figurative or literal? If it is literal and it feeds into the native myth of an ancient evil coming to claim its victims, are we to read into the clearly purposefully embedded imagery of industrialized landscapes eating into the natural world? Or should we process the horror on a personal level instead and view it only as an avatar for generational transference of trauma?
Either of these would probably work. Sadly, Antlers wants to have its cake and eat it because – until the very final act – it is dead set on advancing all those ideas and interpretations simultaneously. And the sad thing is that when ranked against one another, some are simply more interesting than others. Therefore, I found myself continually wishing the camera would revert to exploring the internalized trauma hidden within its central characters instead of having me go along with a supernatural murder mystery or its environmental interpretation. Funnily enough, it also seems the film eventually runs out of gas trying to tow all these heavy loads at the same time and gives in at the last second so that it could resolve itself in the most conventional manner possible – by way of protagonists fighting a monster… only to retreat into an allegorical plane in the very closing shots of the film, which is clearly intended to leave the viewer stirring with thoughts on their way out of the cinema.
Hence, I can only describe Antlers as an unbridled mishmash that hides something truly compelling within itself, attempts to fold it into something more cerebral and wide-reaching but eventually bottles it when it realizes it lacks the acumen to mesh everything together in a satisfying manner, which leads it to fall on its sword in the end. As a result, it can’t hold the candle to something like Hereditary or The Babadook whose success relied heavily on the balancing act between what’s literal and what isn’t and becomes nothing more than an otherwise potent drama interrupted halfway through by a murderous monster that needs to be dealt with. Granted, Scott Cooper’s brooding tone and a grimy aesthetic are perfectly serviceable and serve to underpin solid performances from Keri Russell and Jesse Plemons, but Antlers just doesn’t come together as intended… simply because its supernatural element is just unneeded. And from where I am sitting, when a supernatural horror is impeded by its supernaturally horrific elements, it is a good indication that something’s amiss.